Sign saying 'no weapons permitted'
Cultural relations on the front line. Sign outside British Council Office in Libya. Photo ©

British Council

June 2017

With on-going instability in Libya, closer relations with traditional social groupings there could pay dividends. Alison Baily, British Council Senior Policy Analyst, Security and Stability, looks at our latest research.

How to stabilise Libya

The question of how to stabilise Libya has risen sharply up the agenda of Western policymakers amid increasing signs that the violence there is spilling over onto the streets of Europe. A number of recent attacks, including last month’s bombing at the Manchester Arena, have been linked to Daesh’s Libyan branch. The absence of a single central government and national army is also a major factor in the rise of migration across the Mediterranean (which according to UNHCR reached 363,348 arrivals in 2016). 

New research from the University of Durham, commissioned by the British Council , suggests that part of the answer to Libya’s stabilisation conundrum lies with the country’s tribes, families and traditional social groupings. The research demonstrates the important role they’ve played in providing public services, maintaining a level of order and mediating local conflicts between the many armed groups that have flourished in the post-2011 governance vacuum. 

Based on interviews with a wide range of local players on the ground, the study concludes that these groups are the glue that keeps Libya’s social fabric together. They hold a uniquely influential position in society, enjoying strong credibility in their communities that outsiders, from national government officials to international diplomats, simply cannot replicate. Moreover, their extensive networks and knowledge means they can negotiate local dynamics and bring about change on a whole range of issues, from getting access to sensitive areas, to brokering agreements and sorting out local security problems.

Elders in the Kufra region managed to counter Daesh’s radicalisation of young people in their tribe

The study highlights a number of striking examples of the effectiveness of local social actors. Elders in the Kufra region, for example, managed to counter Daesh’s radicalisation of young people in their tribe. They used their influence with their relatives, warning that they would be ostracised unless their youth left Daesh. They intervened on similar lines when forces opposing the internationally-recognised government members seized Libya’s main oil terminals, and encouraged them to withdraw.

The study also showed how social structures and institutions are most effective in addressing security concerns when they work across the generations. In Kufra the study showed that efforts to broker a sustainable ceasefire finally worked after several attempts because the elders began to work with young people to reach the agreement. The young people, who were the ones who would go out and fight, felt that their voice was finally being heard and their concerns addressed.

Filling the governance gap

Some obvious limitations to the influence of social groups and institutions in peacebuilding are revealed by the study. Their interest is always focussed on the security of their immediate area, and they are far less likely to want to join efforts to act beyond it. They will not always have the same level of influence from area to area, and this influence will be particularly constrained in areas where there is one dominant military power. Moreover, the very factors that make them influential – their links with a wide range of armed groups and political actors - also makes them a riskier partner for international stabilisation efforts, given that some of their connections may be with anti-Western or opposition forces.

The responsibility for maintaining order and resolving conflict is likely to remain with these traditional social actors for the time being

However, with efforts to reunite the country’s divided rival governments making slow and unsteady progress, the responsibility for maintaining order and resolving conflict is likely to remain with these traditional social actors for the time being. International organisations should not hold back from greater dialogue between prospective peacebuilding partners, or from forging relations across political lines, when in doing so they can play an important mediating role.

Understanding the peacebuilding capacities of grassroots social actors and building effective relationships with them offers an important near-term prospect for filling the governance gap. 

Alison Baily, Senior Policy Analyst, Security and Stability, British Council 

See also